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from the January 2011 issue

from “Daewoo”

Daewoo in Lorraine: Landmarks

The blue building was empty, the name of the factory had been changed, and tough shit for the men and women who had been tossed out—"report to the occupational reclassification department," which wouldn't reclassify many people. (I'm writing in March 2004: this reclassification task, which began fifteen months ago, was finished three months ago and still no statistics are available.)

Layoffs continue, and if we're talking about businesses—their holy name, "business"— that employ less than fifty people, the layoffs are not even accounted for. At Fameck, the blue building is still there, looking sharp with its white gate, while the condition of cars parked in town attest to everyone else's general health: not so great. But the serious cracks running across the surface of the old world today do not readily reveal the reasons that make them apparent.

The three Daewoo factories are practically in a straight line along the four-lane highway that runs between Metz and Thionville to Luxembourg via Longwy, through the Fensch Valley, which at one time was punctuated by huge steelworks but only one survives today, like the tall furnace at Uckange, cold for the last twelve years, the imposing frozen ruin a tribute to the time when this valley lived on the transformation of iron to steel.

On September 16, 2002, the closing of the Daewoo factory in Villers-La-Montagne is officially announced. In Villers-la-Montagne as well as in Fameck, the Daewoo factory is a simple white parallelepiped among other smaller industrial buildings overlooking the highway. Since 1989 microwave ovens were made here, the factory employed 229 people, women—in 1989 it was practically a small symbol of luxury in kitchens, microwaves, an appliance that symbolized the modern age. Now it's like a toaster, banal, and the ones found in supermarkets (I checked) even under fifteen different brand names are all made in China.

Nine miles farther down the road: the flagship factory. The largest of the three units built by Daewoo, and also the newest. They made such a big deal about setting up shop in Lorraine, on the ruins of the steel industry, where progress and the coveted objects of modern comfort would find fertile ground and a ready supply of human labor—two more factories would spring up in two other nearby towns, one of them to make glass for television screens. Mont-Saint-Martin is just outside Longwy, a town that didn't take enough care of itself back in the day when factory chimneys filled the night sky with orange flames, and now looks like someone who has lost weight but not changed out of their old clothes. Too many dead façades. Along the Chiers River, where the railway tracks also run below the town, where you had to drive past mile after mile of factories, steel-rolling mills, wire-cabling plants, before finding the main entrance to the place the temporary employment agency sent you to, pale fields, barren fields, where even the grass is ailing. The Daewoo factory was built on the heights in Mont-Saint-Martin, a town looking for a deployment outside the scars of three crumbling steel mills, those mills that I had known when they were noisy and smoking, and at night glowing almost all the way to the sky in that period of the mid-1970s, when we would go there in the summer to hire ourselves out as temp workers to cover the costs of our student years, when we listened to Led Zeppelin and found our music in harmony with the abstract geometry and power of factories. In Mont-Saint-Martin, 550 people for production of cathode-ray tubes, the vacuum cone with electrons emitted from a high-frequency double coil. The only factory with a male majority, but few skilled jobs, even though it requires very specialized workmanship.

People will frequently mention the enormous turnover because these Daewoo women and men take off as soon as they find anything better. They'll provide figures on the gnawing absenteeism, due to low wages, not enough supervisors. As an example of a now-universal practice they'll cite the numbers of those employed on an interim basis to avoid hiring full timers.

Mont-Saint-Martin will produce a thousand cathode tubes per day, a question today: you can't make a factory like that profitable with that volume of production. The flagship vessel of Daewoo Lorraine, the group didn't worry about reducing its deficit: a pretext for other alliances in the gigantic and more solid market for automobile engines in North Africa; is that why the Koreans needed France? Simply a place to circulate capital they'd rather keep invisible? It's the newest of the three factories and an entire swath of ministers came for the plant's inauguration. During the strikes that follow the announcement of the plant’s closing, the factory will be occupied. Workers, investigating the computers, discovered the existence of fifty Swiss bank accounts: they lacked the foresight to demand that the equipment be seized as evidence. A few days later, fire set by arson destroys the factory and its inventory. The very next morning, the directors evacuate the computers and accounting vouchers from the administrative building, which escaped damage. A missed opportunity.

In 1998, the Daewoo group decides to liquidate thirty-two of its forty-seven factories around the world. The three factories in the Fensch valley were subsidized by the state in the name of giving lifeblood and work back to a region bled dry when the mines and steel mills were shut down. So who do the factories belong to? Political authorities in the region waste no time before claiming that they made a return on their investment ("we got our money back," the president of the regional government, Gerard Longuet, elegantly announced—and in our society of  "good economic sense" according to the slogan of the Prime Minister at the time I'm writing, that's good enough). The three Daewoo sister plants employ 1,200 people at this time. In Villers-la-Montagne, when the group gives its first warning, they had already closed two out of five assembly lines in the factory.

The second factory to be built is also the second to be closed. In Fameck, just past Uckange, where the Fensch valley opens up, Daewoo had built a unit to make televisions. The unit employs 260 people, here too, the overwhelming majority of them women. In 1998, they're producing more than one million televisions per year. In 2000, Daewoo exports its televisions from Poland, and no more than 600,000 are now produced in Fameck. In 2002 they decided to further reduce production to 450,000 and management announces in January that the first "social plan" will eliminate ninety jobs that year through voluntary departures. In exchange they promise that Daewoo Fameck will assemble flat screens, which will give the factory a second lease on life. In April 2002, workers march into the town after a mysterious factory visit by a certain Mr. Choi, top man in the company. The workers only ask for "transparency." On Friday, December 13, Korean manager Kwon Sik Im informs the 170 remaining workers that the definitive closing of the factory is set for January. As in Villers, workers occupy the plant, sequester the boss, march. An office is trashed. Lots of newspaper articles.

On October 17, 2002, the commercial court in Briey (Longwy is in Meurthe-et-Moselle) gives the Mont-Saint-Martin factory three months to prove that it can turn a profit, which Daewoo never sought to do the whole time it was receiving public subsidies. It's discovered that the factory did not pay fees or taxes and that the tax authorities let them get away with it, while they owe 3.4 million euros for health and welfare benefits, to which the Social Security Contribution Collection Office adds 400,000 euros in additional penalties. Management ingratiates itself with the reply that it will cut costs "thanks to internal reorganization and negotiations with suppliers." The state invokes a mysterious reimbursement for the VAT (value added tax) on exports to clear up these debts. On January 9, 2003, the commercial court of Briey meets again and the factory declares bankruptcy. The workers decide to occupy the plant. The factory is granted a grace period until February 9, before the official liquidation is announced. It's estimated that Daewoo received 35 million euros in public subsidies.

The 229 women workers at Daewoo Villers have been laid off since December 2002 and their factory closed. It's announced that Daewoo Fameck will shut down on January 31, 2003, and the 170 workers who escaped the preceding year's social plan will be fired. On January 23 a fire destroys the Mont-Saint-Martin Daewoo plant, struck since December 19, occupied on January 20, yet they claim work resumed there on January 20.

The end. But what about the women? What about the men?

Fameck, May 2003: Waiting for the mailman, and Sylvia

Past the traffic circle where the blue factory was still crowned by the word Daewoo, two hundred yards farther along on the left: the elementary school.

Mostly mothers (some men, and they didn't come by car but on foot, and slowly left again: men without work.) Some of the mothers waited just a few seconds with the car's engine idling, the children got out, then off they went in a hurry.

I went inside and shook hands with the teachers. Maryse P. arrived just before the bell rang, her two sons went to their classrooms, we went into an office that had been offered to me for the interview. At first we exchanged words like you do to explore: about the factory, the assembly line, the foremen, the job description. And then, at the end of one sentence, I asked permission to record the conversation and took out my Sony MiniDisc.

"Well, OK. I'm going to tell you about Sylvia. She died, last month. Hasn't anyone talked to you about Sylvia?

"We're in too small a town. Our paths are already marked, we follow them. You go out to do the shopping. You retrieve the mail from the mailbox. Actually, no, you wait until the mailman has left (from the kitchen window, you watch, and with a little practice just the noise from his motor scooter from one stairwell to another is enough), then I go down, knowing that he's gone. You wouldn't put up with him seeing you wait if he, the mailman, already knows the wait was in vain. You sort through the junk mail. There are summonses, bills, the obligatory paper. If that's all there is, once again, nothing but this, you leave it in the mailbox. You can take it back upstairs when you come back. If there's a letter that actually says something, then you go back upstairs to read it. Calmly, with no one else around, I go back into the kitchen, pour myself a little coffee, sit down, and read. If it's bad news, you stay there, elbows on the table, head between your two hands. If your kid comes into the room at that exact moment, he understands: 'Don't worry Mommy.' But you can't believe it, it was eleven o'clock and now it's noon, for forty-five minutes your head in cement, for what—but you'd scratch your nails on that cement, the walls, you'd like to scrape them until you hurt yourself before changing a damn thing about the state of the world here.

"It's quiet though, in your kitchen, at this time of the morning. Noise from a radio in the distance, noise from the balconies, some smells that tell you that you also better get in gear to prepare a meal.

"So that at least the kids will eat (living thirty yards from the school they don't have to go to the cafeteria; at least since Daewoo is over I get to see my kids). And if by chance you have a letter, words that offer you a little bit of sky, then you stand in front of your window, you look outside. Above the rooftops, as far as you can see, out there where there's green and blue. You can't decide for yourself, amid all the possibilities you juggle, what your life will become. But at least you stand there, on the horizon, your own scaffolding for what could be. You go back downstairs, you've got your wallet, you walk a little quickly. Sylvia, it's because of that: Me, Sylvia, I go there every day and there's no letter, but how many days without a letter.

"In Lidl I have to get something for my kids for lunch. Frozen food is cheaper, there are special discounts, 'red labels,' as they call them—to be eaten fast before the food passes its expiration date. At home, you take off the plastic wrap, you know that if you put it in a really hot pan, it won't smell, that special discount meat. Special for us, just us? Me and my girlfriends—never at the same cash register at Lidl. What food you buy requires a little discretion before putting it in the plastic bag. A little hand signal, we greet each other with a kiss, but outside the store. Now, all of us live a life where we count costs.

"So sometimes I go there with my Lidl bag, to Sylvia's gravestone. Why not, what can she see anyway?

"When I get back, in my mailbox, I find Freebies, the advertisement paper. That's for the afternoon, at the kitchen table. Female caregiver for a lonely elderly person. Bilingual executive secretary, energetic, with a good knowledge of Excel. Sylvia, she was the one who made up stories for us. She loved movies, she traveled miles to go see a film. And us at work, we listened to her. The boss couldn't say anything: we looked straight ahead; we didn't even look at her when she told us her story. Sometimes it lasted an hour. We joked around: Sylvia, your story, it's longer than the movie, you're making things up, you exaggerate . . .

"She didn't speak in a loud or high voice, no, the noise in the factory, it was more like we kept it at a distance. Sylvia's whispering, we could hear it, she was speaking to us, while we kept going through the motions.

"Sylvia, she made up a story that after the factory we'd have a truck and we'd go into the country to search for strange objects, little nothings, little pretty things that we like, and then we'd go from market to market to sell them, the five of us, even very far away, we'd manage to do much better than on the assembly line, and with more sun. I'm going to get my truck-driver's license, Sylvia would say, so we can see some of the country. Or another time, that we'd rent a place, set up an organization—she loved to say that, as if that solved anything. We'll put together a group. Her idea was that we would welcome other women, boost their spirits, help them take the necessary steps. And then, and then . . .

"Or Sylvia had a boyfriend, then no more boyfriend. Sometimes we laughed about it. The boyfriend had nothing but good points at first, and then, when she dumped him, from his shaving cream to his family life, we knew all about it.

“After the social plan (that's what it's called, first social plan, limited social plan, new social plan, me and Sylvia were in the third social plan), she stayed single, without a boyfriend, longer than before. 'It's because I don't go out,' Sylvia said—yeah, right. For her suicide, we all accompanied her—taking her body from the hospital, driving in our cars to the gravestone, up there in the new cemetery. I don't go to movies. When I think about a film, I hear her, she tells me about it. Now at my kitchen table, saying to myself: 'and if what was happening to us was just a bad movie that we could rewind and poof!' Sylvia's voice invents another one for me, a much better one.

"In the morning when I go to her grave, at first I used to talk to her.

"Not anymore. Silence. And listening to it in your head, that silence. There's no more story, Sylvia. I remember the first day when we were at the entrance to the factory, the closed white gate, do not enter, and the guards pushed us back, and to one of those guys, here's what she said, Sylvia: 'I'm old enough to be your mother, little one.' Of course, to get a look at her that morning, with her red highlights and her leather jacket, it made us laugh, and maybe the young guy too, but he just turned his back on us. They don't like to hear things like that, people who tell you that you live in the same world they do. And to us, on the way back, this strange thing, claiming she'd read it in the Bible: The sweat on your forehead now cannot be sold, when you eat your bread you'll know now that the sweat on your brow is superfluous. We are the superfluous ones, she added. And I think about it, about that word, on her gravestone . . ."

Silence. I had turned off the tape recorder.

“And this word, superfluous, the way it sticks to you . . .” Maryse P. added. And I’m adding it here to the transcription.

From Daewoo. Copyright 2004 Francois Bon. Published 2004 by Fayard. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2011 by Alison Dundy and Emmanuelle Ertel. All rights reserved.

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